The Book of Dead Philosophers, By Simon Critchley

Famous last words: notes from the philosophers' graveyard
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The Independent Culture

Wittgenstein (died of cancer) said that, if you wanted to become a philosopher, you should become a car mechanic, not read books about philosophy. Derrida (also cancer) said that, of all the books in his library, he had only read three or four, but he had really read those.

Simon Critchley (not dead yet) follows a third way in The Book of Dead Philosophers, closer to Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy, in trying to read everything but fashioning the vastness of what he has read into snappy sound bites – or, in a darker vein, vampire bites.

This is a philosophers' graveyard, where lovers of wisdom return to deliver not just their thoughts on death but to re-live their last moments. The emphasis is less on the philosopher's stone than the tombstone. Maybe Critchley should have included Spike Milligan's classic epitaph: "I told you I was ill." It would have summed up a lot of what philosophers have to say.

It is possible that philosophy began as a form of mourning ritual. From before Plato (lice infestation), it tended to argue that death was a gateway to transcendence and the contemplation of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Therefore, to philosophise (as Montaigne – hit by a horse – said) was to learn how to die. Some time around Nietzsche (syphilis or possibly kissing a horse), the stairway-to-heaven theory gave way to a focus on the absurdities of existence.

Hell is already here, in the shape of other people (Sartre: alcohol, tobacco, drugs). Critchley is a post-existentialist. He reckons that we suffer from a crippling fear of death and that contemplating the deaths of philosophers is one way to fix it.

You don't have to be a philosopher to die, but it probably helps. When the tormented Wittgenstein was offered an electric blanket for his birthday with the cheerful message, "Many happy returns", he replied bluntly: "There are no returns." But the ultimate consolation of this book is that philosophy does not come up with any magic solutions. As Simone de Beauvoir observed, even saints have died howling and writhing.

Here, everybody dies in a fast-forward philosophical holocaust. It sounds grim, but Critchley has a lightness of touch, a nimbleness of thought, and a mocking graveyard humour that puts you in mind of Hamlet with a skull. There is a modesty here that reminds you that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy.